Marines’ #MeToo moment: Tribunal to decide fate of officer accused of sexual harassment
By TOM VANDEN BROOK | USA Today | Published: October 26, 2018
MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. (Tribune News Service) — A Marine Corps officer accused of making blatant sexual overtures to two women he supervised adamantly denied the allegations after one accuser just as forcefully rejected the assertion she had made up her story.
Marine Corps Maj. David Cheek has been accused by two civilian women — one of them the wife of a Marine officer — of luring them to empty offices and showing that he was sexually aroused. On Thursday, Cheek denied the charges, which date to 2013 and were first reported by USA Today in February. He also faces charges of sending one of the women inappropriate text messages. The Marine Corps in previous investigations has found the charges unsubstantiated.
As early as Friday, a tribunal of three Marine colonels will decide Cheek’s fate in a legal drama larded with salacious detail. Cheek must convince three colonels that he should keep his job or be forced to retire. The allegations lodged against him exploded earlier this year into a scandal that required the Marine’s corps top leader to intervene.
Thursday’s hearing had echoes of the battle over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court: allegations of sexual misconduct from the past from women who have come forward during the #MeToo movement now threatening to derail the careers of powerful men.
Cheek on Thursday branded the allegations of sexual misconduct “utterly false” and “ridiculous.”
“It’s disgusting,” he said. “And it did not happen.”
The stories had taken a toll on his family and stalled his promotion to lieutenant colonel, he said. His lawyers argued that the charges were made by one woman who had received a negative job evaluation and by the other who is seeking financial compensation. Cheek, an officer from Pennsylvania, enlisted in the Marines in 1991 and returned to become an officer. He has served for nearly 27 years and is now an officer handling personnel issues.
Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps Commandant, ordered Cheek’s case reopened after the story was published in February. In April, Brig. Gen. Kurt Stein, who commanded the division where the women worked, called the case “fake news” at a town hall meeting and subsequently was fired by Neller. Cheek has to prove his case for remaining on active duty. The board could discharge Cheek and retire him at reduced rank.
The hearing had the elements of a military trial: Marine lawyers arguing for the government against Cheek, and a civilian attorney and two Marine lawyers defending him. Witnesses offered sworn testimony. In the end, the colonels, all men, will decide if a preponderance supports drumming Cheek from the service.
In interviews and documents, Sherry Yetter and Traci Sharpe have alleged that Cheek arranged to meet with them privately and on five occasions showed them through his clothing that he had an erection. The women said they didn’t file complaints immediately because they feared retaliation.
Sharpe did not testify at the service’s base on the Potomac River about 30 miles south of Washington.
Yetter’s story didn’t change Thursday during more than hour of testimony. Twice in 2013, Cheek invited her to his deserted office late in the day, swiveled his chair toward her and exposed his erection concealed by tight gym shorts. The first time she dismissed the encounter as a mistake and didn’t say anything for fear of embarrassing Cheek.
The second time, Yetter said, she told Cheek that she was married to Marine Lt. Col. Gregg Yetter and walked out. Yetter didn’t report the incidents until 2014, fearing retaliation against her and her husband, she said.
Asked if whether had fabricated her story, Yetter, who is a sexual assault response coordinator for the Marines, replied, “Absolutely not.”
Cheek’s defense lawyers called on character witnesses, including former superior officers who praised his professionalism. Retired Col. Mary Reinwald, who had led sexual assault prevention efforts for the Marines, said Cheek had been a model officer when he worked for her.
“I’ve never felt anything questionable about Dave Cheek,” she said.
Another civilian woman who worked with Cheek said she, too, had found him to be a good colleague. But Valerie Noseck said she was aware that Yetter and Sharpe did not. Sharpe, Noseck said, dreaded meeting with Cheek and looked shaken after seeing him privately. Noseck became aware in 2014 that Yetter had had a “very negative experience” with Cheek and that there was a sexual aspect to it.
Noseck noticed that Yetter had changed, she said.
“Genuinely, she was afraid for her personal safety,” Noseck said.
The case with Cheek exposed years of problems at the Marine and Family Programs Division.
A Marine inspector general’s report in 2015, obtained by USA Today, described a toxic work environment at the division, which includes sexual assault prevention programs. The division struggled with complaints of sexual harassment, racial bias and bad management, including a secret settlement reached with one official to get her to leave the base quietly.
On April 6, Stein referred to the allegations by Yetter and Sharpe as “fake news,” a term that President Donald Trump uses regularly to disparage reporting he doesn’t like. Stein also joked that he lived vicariously through a Navy chaplain fired for having sex in public, a story that first appeared in USA Today.